LAHORE, Pakistan -- The bloody battle of wills between the Pakistani government and Islamic extremists continued with five terrorist attacks on Thursday that claimed at least 38 lives and was timed, officials said, ahead of a planned military offensive against Taliban guerrillas in their stronghold along the Afghan border.
The latest violence, including three simultaneous assaults in the eastern city of Lahore in Pakistan's Punjab province heartland, jolted a country already reeling from a spate of attacks that started last week.
The onslaught appears to be aimed at breaking the country's resolve before it can launch a U.S.-backed operation in the lawless South Wazirstan region, the center of Pakistani extremism that's part of the Taliban-controlled tribal area that lies on the border with Afghanistan and is refuge for al Qaida.
"The enemy has started a guerrilla war," said Interior Minister Rehman Malik. "The whole nation should be united against these handful of terrorists, and God willing we will defeat them."
In 11 days of attacks across the country, more than 120 civilians and law enforcement personnel have been killed in a mix of suicide strikes and military-style assaults, including a daring raid on Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi over the weekend.
The historic city of Lahore, considered Pakistan's cultural capital, is a sophisticated place a world away from the wild tribal area. On Thursday morning, however, it resembled a battle zone as terrorists hit two police training centers and the office of the Federal Investigation Agency, the national law enforcement body.
Separately, a suicide bomber killed 11 when he rammed his car into a police station in Kohat, in the northwest on the edge of the tribal area. Later in the day, a car exploded outside a housing complex for government employees in the city of Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province, killing a 6-year-old boy and wounding nine others, most of them women and children.
"The militants are pre-empting an attack on South Waziristan. They want to dilute the military force by dispersing it all the country and create confusion and doubt in the minds of the public," said Hasham Baber, a senior member of the Awami National Party, which runs the regional government in the militancy-plagued North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Pakistani public opinion, as well as military resolve, came together earlier this year for the first time after years of popular opposition to armed action at home and repeated military attempts to make peace deals with the extremists. Ordinary people have been left bewildered, unable to believe that the menace comes from within their country.
"Only God knows where such people (terrorists) come from, because I know that Muslims cannot kill other Muslims," said Mohammad Yousaf, a 55-year-old who runs a tea shop just outside the wall of a police commando training school and who spent several hours hiding inside his store Thursday as gunfire and explosions engulfed the area.
Taliban militants, who're ethnic Pashtuns based in Pakistan's northwest fringe, have combined forces with extremists in the mainstream of the country, especially the heartland Punjab province, creating a network that seems to be able to strike at will throughout the nation.
The government has claimed repeatedly that the Pakistani Taliban, now under even more violent leadership after their previous chief was killed by a U.S. missile strike in August, is flailing as it collapses, but many think the recent attacks indicate that it's growing more potent.
"They (extremists) are everywhere," said Faisal Ali Subzwari, a member of the secular MQM party and a minister in southern Sindh provincial government. "If we don't tackle them properly, it will lead us to anarchy."
The assaults in Lahore began about 9 a.m. when a group of gunmen attacked the Federal Investigation Agency. The attack lasted about 1 1/2 hours and ended with the deaths of four government employees and a bystander. Two assailants, one of whom was wearing a suicide vest, also died.
A second band of gunman then raided a police training school on the outskirts of the city, killing nine police officers. Police killed one gunman, and the other three blew themselves up.
A third team scaled the back wall of an elite police commando training center near the airport. Some of the attackers made it onto the roofs of houses inside the sprawling compound. Two of the assailants were shot, while three others blew themselves up when they saw they were surrounded by police and soldiers. A police paramedic and a civilian also died.
"The government will have to take the war to the tribal areas and away from the cities," said Lahore-based defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. "They have to make an attempt to retrieve the initiative."
Sajjad Bhutta, a senior government official for Lahore, said the attackers appeared to be both from tribal area and from Punjab, which would repeat the pattern seen in the military headquarters attack, where the exactly half the 10-man assault team came from Punjab and the other half from the northwest. The army said afterward that the terrorists involved had received training in Waziristan.
The "fedayeen" terrorists appear to receive training very similar to that of military commandos. In some cases, it's emerged that former Pakistani army officers are running training camps, such as the terrorist school operated in Waziristan by Ilyas Kashmiri, an al Qaida linked extremist who reportedly is a former Pakistani Special Services Group (SSG) special forces soldier. Kashmiri supposedly was killed in a recent U.S. missile strike in Waziristan, but there are reports that he's alive.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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